What Are Foo Fighters?

By Tom Woron

“That was ‘The Pretender’ by the Foo Fighters,” said the DJ on the radio as a song ended. The Foo Fighters? Yes, there is a rock band called the Foo Fighters. 

Back in the early 1990s a popular American band called Nirvana from Aberdeen, Washington, was the key band promoting a type of rock music called grunge. Nirvana dominated the airwaves for a while, but the untimely death of lead singer and songwriter Kurt Cobain in 1994 spelled doom for the band. Without its frontman Nirvana could not carry on, and the band became defunct.

After the demise of Nirvana, the band’s former drummer, Dave Grohl, began a project by himself in which he recorded 15 songs that he wrote. With only one exception, Grohl played all of the instruments himself and sang all of the vocals on all 15 songs. When the recording was completed, Grohl handed out cassette tapes of the project to friends for their opinions of it. Desiring to keep the identity behind his songs a secret, Grohl named his project “Foo Fighters” so as to lead listeners to believe that there were multiple musicians behind the music, not just him by himself. The recording got the attention of record companies. The Foo Fighters went from what was supposed to be a one-time solo project by Grohl to becoming a highly successful rock band. 

Grohl at the time did not know that the Foo Fighters would become a huge success and that the band would become his full-time career in music after Nirvana. Had he known what was to come, he has said, he would have come up with a different name, because he thought that Foo Fighters was the dumbest name ever for a rock band. How did Grohl come up with the name? What are “foo fighters”? 

While it is unclear why Grohl chose the name for his project, foo fighters in reality were unidentified flying objects (UFOs) or unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) that were seen by numerous pilots and airmen during the Second World War. Although Allied airmen had seen what they believed were UFOs earlier in the war, it was from November 1944 onward that Allied airmen flying over Germany and German-occupied territory frequently noticed strange, rapidly moving lights that seemed to pursue their aircraft. These objects glowed red, orange, white, and green at times, and behaved as if they were controlled by some intelligence. They sometimes appeared as a single fiery object and at other times as many in a formation.

The astonished airmen witnessed these objects maneuvering in ways that no known aircraft could at the time. One pilot, believing that the unknown objects were a new type of Nazi weapon, decided to challenge them and turned his plane toward them. The objects immediately disappeared. A short time later the mysterious lights reappeared, but at a much greater distance from his aircraft. Apparently they were not made of any kind of solid material since they did not show up on either ground or airborne radar.

Reports of strange glowing objects buzzing around Allied aircraft came in more frequently as the war wound down in its final months. Although descriptions of the unknown objects varied, the pattern of the encounters was similar in many respects. Mysterious fiery lights would suddenly show up, appear to pursue Allied aircraft for a while, sometimes getting up close, and then they would suddenly veer off and disappear. The objects maneuvering around the aircraft were never reported to take any hostile action nor in any way cause damage to the aircraft; however, the airmen who encountered them found the experience to be nerve-racking. One American airman, a radar operator, who saw the strange lights following his aircraft named them “foo fighters.” 

Single-engine German aircraft approaching Allied aircraft with the intent to shoot them down were called “fighters.” It is widely believed that a U.S. 415th Night Fighter Squadron radar operator, Donald J. Meiers, gave the name “foo fighters” to the mysterious lights approaching and seemingly chasing the airplanes. The name came from Smokey Stover, a popular American comic strip of the time. The strip featured the silliness and mishaps of the title character, a firefighter who referred to himself with a nonsensical phrase, “foo fighter.” 

The phenomenon was not limited to the European Theater. American airmen in the Pacific Theater also encountered mysterious “balls of fire” that hovered in the sky and, at times, pursued their aircraft. They, too, noted that these balls of fire never fired upon nor damaged their aircraft. They ultimately decided that the objects were a secret Japanese psychological weapon designed to distract them and drive them crazy. After the war, the Americans asked Japanese airmen about the flying objects that their country sent out to buzz around our airplanes and drive our pilots insane. Surprised at being asked the question, the Japanese replied that they too had seen the objects, had noted that they took no hostile action against their aircraft, and had come to the conclusion that they were a secret American weapon designed to mess with their minds.

Likewise after the war, thirteen high-ranking officers of the Luftwaffe (Nazi Germany’s air force) were questioned about the unknown glowing objects observed by British and American airmen on night missions over Europe. All thirteen claimed they knew nothing about any secret German weapon or anything else that could explain the mysterious sightings. 

As 1945 began, a news reporter who had spent time with the 415th published a story about the foo fighters that ran on the front page of newspapers all across the United States. Because of the number of reports of foo fighters and the impact they were having on aircrews—and, more shockingly, the fact that a reporter had interviewed the airmen and published their story—the military decided to investigate the matter.

Many theories were offered to explain the foo fighter sightings. Among them was that they were hallucinations due to battle fatigue. Another theory was that they were the Nazis’ newly developed V-2 rocket, a ballistic missile, many of which were being launched from Germany against Great Britain and the Western European allies. 

The airmen who observed the foo fighters rejected the hallucination theory. They were there, and they knew what they saw. The V-2 rocket explanation seemed plausible at first since the tail of the rocket would glow with a flame as it burned fuel. However, this theory was also dismissed by the airmen and by military aviation historians because descriptions of the foo fighters’ maneuverability—such as “turning on a dime” and sudden accelerations—were not consistent with the speed and course that a ballistic missile would take. Other theories offered to explain the foo fighters witnessed during World War II have also been dismissed due to the lack of any credible evidence. They were never identified or logically explained.

Although the foo fighters seen during the Second World War remain an unexplained mystery to this day, they sure gave us a great rock band! 

Your assignment: If you’re not familiar with the Foo Fighters band and/or their song “The Pretender,” Google it and watch the YouTube video.

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